“From our myopia arose our dystopia.” (Anthony Marais)

How are you feeling about the current state of the world, Reader? Yeah, me too.This week’s theme is dystopian novels…

Firstly, The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman (2014) which I first heard about over on Naomi’s blog. Ice Cream Fifteen Star lives sometime in the future, in the Nighted States, at a time when a disease called posies means life expectancy is around eighteen years.

“Posies grown inside and outside, blackish death put roots into your body and its flowers bloom.”

A disease called WAKS – which may or may not be the same as posies – has wiped out ‘sleepers’, the white population. The children and young adults who make up the surviving population of the Nighted States grow up quickly. Ice Cream is a hunter, sergeant to her tribe – the Sengles – and under pressure to hurry up and have a baby before she too succumbs to posies.

“The dusking sleep of Lowell City take my loneliness. I ride home to my full-grown trouble, to my people few and feary small, my Sengle town.”

Ice Cream Star is a wonderful protagonist: strong, feisty, dynamic. The language that Newman has created for her is highly effective, capturing a sense of new speech for a new world, a world where ‘standard’ English no longer holds dominance or relevance. The language furthers the context of a story told by a young woman of colour, where to be middle aged and white is ‘Other’.  This is not a future where an older, white, middle-class patriarchy dominate. When Ice Cream meets a white man in his thirties, a “roo”, the lines on his face, blond hair and blue eyes are deeply odd to her.

“Something liven in his frosten eyes, like water stirred by fish.”

This never entirely goes away, even as the two become deeply bonded. The fact that roos live longer, that they may have a cure for posies, takes on a new urgency as Ice-Cream’s beloved older brother, Driver, starts to show signs of the disease.

“My brother lain like sleeping water, loose. Arm rest above the covers, and his hand itself look easy. I touch his shoulder careful, and his breath pause like a question. I hold my breath along. Sigh gratty when he breathe again.”

Ice Cream and her roo set out on a quest for a cure, taking them into contact with other tribes, danger and desolate cities, long abandoned.

“And the cloud slow from the moon. Light give back its silver grief. Empty towers sharpen, like a goliath monument of loss; a burial yard of giants left upon the fearing world.”

The Country of Ice Cream Star is a novel of big themes: gender, race, religion, civilisation, war. As I was reading it I first thought it was about 100 pages too long (its 629 pages in my edition) but now I’m not sure. It may have just been where my mind was when I was reading it – stressed out & tired! Having finished it a few weeks ago, the novel – and particularly the idiosyncratic, poetic voice of Ice Cream Star – have really stayed with me. She’s a truly unique heroine.

In the Country of Ice Cream Star also reminded me of a film I saw a few years back, Beasts of the Southern Wild, which featured a similarly impressive female protagonist and an astonishing lead performance by Quvenzhané Wallis, the youngest Best Actress Oscar nominee ever:

Secondly, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005), which was shortlisted for the Booker. We are categorically told the setting is “England, late 1990s”, and so this is an alternative version of recent history in a recogniseable land. Ishiguro cleverly drip-feeds the reader information so that you slowly piece together what is happening to make this different to the “England, late 1990s” we know. As such, to avoid spoilers, this will be an uncharacteristically short discussion 😉

The narrator Kath describes growing up at a residential school, Hailsham, and her friendship with fellow students Ruth and Tommy. Gradually, Kath starts to realise that there is something about Hailsham students, utterly cut off from the outside world, which sets them apart from other people.

“So you’re waiting, even if you don’t quite know it, waiting for the moment when you realise that you really are different to them; that there are people out there… who don’t hate you or wish you any harm, but who nevertheless shudder at the very thought of you – of how you brought into this world and why – and who dread the idea of your hand brushing against theirs. The first time you glimpse yourself through the eyes of a person like that, it’s a cold moment. It’s like walking past a mirror that you’ve walked past every day of your life, and suddenly it shows you something else, something troubling and strange.”

On the one hand, as Kath explores her relationship with Ruth and Tommy,  it is a simple tale of three people and the dynamics between them, the deep love they hold for one another alongside the petty betrayals they inflict on one another.

“I now felt awful, and I was confused. But as we stood there staring at the fog and rain, I could think of no way now to repair the damage I’d done… then after a few further seconds of silence, Ruth walked off into the rain.”

But of course it’s so much more, because Ishiguro is a complex writer interested in difficult subjects, and he is exploring how we work out our place in the world and how much of that is pre-determined.  Although the novel could be described as science fiction, it shares much with his Booker winning The Remains of the Day, being about transience, lost opportunities, duty and regret.

“‘I keep thinking about this river somewhere, and the water moving really fast. And these two people in the water, trying to hold onto each other, holding on as hard as they can, but in the end it’s just too much. The current’s too strong. They’ve got to let go, drift apart. That’s how I think it is with us. It’s a shame, Kath, because we’ve loved each other all our lives. But in the end, we can’t stay together forever.’”

As I was reading this, I was thinking: why don’t they fight? Why do they just unquestioningly accept their lot? Why don’t they rail against those dictating how they spend their lives? Don’t they want more? Why aren’t they kicking against it all and demanding justice? And then I realised this is Ishiguro’s master stroke. It’s not science fiction he’s writing. Why aren’t I doing more of those things, for myself and for others?

Never Let Me Go was adapted in 2010 into a film starring Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield, as well as my long standing girl-crush Charlotte Rampling (I basically want to be her/Jane Birkin, fluent in French with artfully dishevelled hair, living a bohemian transcontinental life. Never going to happen.) All the spoilers I’ve so carefully avoided are included in this trailer, so don’t click play if you don’t want to know!

“He that loves reading has everything within his reach.” (William Godwin)

Let’s ignore the sexism of the title quote and focus on the sentiment (especially as Godwin was married to Mary Wollstonecraft who I like to think told him off for any gender assumptions) 🙂  I was prompted to think along these lines a few weeks ago when I watched the moving and joyous BBC4 documentary B is for Book.

I don’t generally write about children’s or YA fiction, but I felt quite inspired by the documentary showing the jubilant discovery and magic of the written word.  My Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century Reading Challenge has some kids books on it, so this week I’m channelling my inner child (not that difficult, tbh)

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Firstly, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1943), ranked number 4 on Le Monde’s list; it is the most translated French book and the fourth most translated book worldwide. And how is this for a CV: Wiki describes Antoine de Saint-Exupéry  as “writer, poet, aristocrat, journalist, and pioneering aviator”. I feel so inadequate.

The Little Prince is narrated by an aviator who crashes in the desert, where he meets a visiting alien prince. The prince is from a planet where he lives alone, and which is so small that the sun is always setting:

“For as everyone knows, when it is noon in the United States the sun is setting over France. If you could get to France in a twinkling, you could watch the sunset right now. Unfortunately France is rather too far away. But on your tiny planet, little prince, you only had to move your chair a few steps. You could watch night fall whenever you liked.

‘One day,’ you said, ‘I watched the sunset forty-three times!’

And a little later you added:

‘You know, when one is that sad, one can get to love the sunset.’

‘Were you that sad, then, on the day of forty-three sunsets?’

But the prince made no answer.”

This melancholy tinge continues throughout the tale. The prince is a sad character and remains mysterious to the aviator.  It is a children’s book though, and has some lovely touches to stir the imagination:

“On the morning of his departure he set his planet in good order. He carefully swept out his active volcanoes. He had two active volcanoes – which were very useful for heating up breakfast in the morning.”

The prince describes his travels, in which he has met six adults, also living alone on isolated tiny planets: a king (who rules over no-one), a vain man, an alcoholic, a businessman (who wants to own the stars), a lamplighter (who constantly lights a lamp for no purpose) and a cartographer (who has never been anywhere). Thus the story is a critique of adults placing meaning in acquisition and status rather than in emotional connection and adventure. The aviator is an adult himself but does not hold adults in high regard:

“Grownups love figures. When you describe a new friend to them, they never ask about important things. They never say: ‘What’s his voice like? What are his favourite games? Does he collect butterflies?’ Instead they demand ‘How old is he? How many brothers has he? How much does he weigh? How much does his father earn?’ Only then do they feel he know him.”

The Little Prince is a sweet, sad tale, one which will appeal to children for the  adventure and imaginative leaps, but also has a great deal to offer adults, as a fable regarding a search for meaning in the world.

“You can only see things clearly with your heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

It is also illustrated with gorgeous watercolours by the author (yet another string to his bow):

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Secondly, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils by Selma Lagerlöf (1906–1907), number 68 on Le Monde’s list. This classic of Swedish literature has been immortalised on stamps, on currency, and Lagerlöf won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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Nils is a self-centred, lazy, cruel ungrateful boy. Bunking off church to stay at home, he gets on the wrong side of an elf. Everyone knows you don’t mess with elves, Nils.  Of course the elf wreaks his revenge:

“For in the glass he saw plainly a little, little creature who was dressed in a hood and leather breeches.

“Why, that one is dressed exactly like me!” said the boy, clasping his hands in astonishment. And then he saw that the thing in the mirror did the same thing. Thereupon he began to pull his hair and pinch his arms and swing round; and instantly he did the same thing after him; he, who was seen in the mirror.

The boy ran around the glass several times, to see if there wasn’t a little man hidden behind it, but he found no one there, and then he began to shake with terror. For now he understood that the elf had bewitched him, and that the creature whose image he saw in the glass was – himself.”

Nils’ family goose, who has the excellent appellation of Morten Goosey-Gander, decides to follow a flock of wild geese on their migration to Lapland and Nils tags along, riding on Goosey-Gander’s back. As an elf, Nils finds he can understand animals’ speech, and learns to be kind rather than torture them.

“The wild geese challenged the white goosey-gander to take part in all kinds of sports. They had swimming races, running races, and flying races with him. The big tame one did his level best to hold his own, but the clever wild geese beat him every time. All the while, the boy sat on the goosey-gander’s back and encouraged him, and he had as much fun as the rest.”

Lagerlöf was commissioned to write this by the National Teachers Association, so in the course of reading about Nils’ journey, you learn about wildlife and Swedish geography: win/win.

“Just as the first spring showers pattered against the ground, there arose such shouts of joy from all the small birds in groves and pastures that the whole air rang with them, and the boy leaped high where he sat. ‘Now we’ll have rain. Rain gives us spring; spring gives us flowers and green leaves; green leaves and flowers give us worms and insects; worms and insects give us food; and plentiful, and good food is the best thing there is,’ sang the birds.”

He didn’t know exactly where on earth he was: if he was in Skåne, in Småland, or in Blekinge. But just before reaching the swamp, he had glimpsed a large village, and thither he directed his steps. Nor was it long before he discovered a road. Soon he was in the village street, which was long, and had trees on both sides, and was bordered with garden after garden. The boy had come to one of the big cathedral towns, which are so common on the uplands, but can hardly be seen at all down in the plain.”

Nils’ wonderful adventures also include seeing off his arch-nemesis Smirre Fox and learning to think of others rather than being such a deeply unpleasant person.  For a book with such a didactic purpose, it really doesn’t read as instructive and moralistic. The Wonderful Adventures of Nils is written with a real lightness of touch and is great fun.

To end, a taster of my favourite book from when I was a child:

“One fine day.” (Carole King)

Last week I mentioned that 2016 has been a terrible year so far. I don’t follow sport in any shape or form, but even I know Andy Murray has done his best to cheer up a post-Brexit UK by winning the men’s singles final at Wimbledon. Congratulations to all the winners!

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Obviously these wins are the result of years of dedicated training, but we all experience things that culminate in one day now and again. So to celebrate I’ve picked two novels that deal with the events of one day.

Firstly, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey (1932), who was one of the Bloomsbury group; this novel was originally published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, she was a niece of Lytton Strachey and was painted by Dora Carrington:

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This novella details the morning of a wedding: the preparations, the arrival of guests, the bustling of servants. The bride doesn’t make an entrance for a while, instead we are treated to her mother, Mrs Thatcham, giving contradictory instructions to all and not seeing that this why things are not organised as she expects:

“with a look of sharp anxiety on her face as usual – as though she had inadvertently swallowed a packet of live bumble-bees and was now beginning to feel them stirring about inside her. She stopped and looked at the clock.

‘I simply fail to understand it!’ burst from her lips.

She trotted briskly out of the drawing-room in the direction of the kitchen.”

Apparently this woman, who veers between being frustratingly tedious and a downright bully, was based on Strachey’s mother-in-law…

Meanwhile, the guests start to arrive. There are some lovely character sketches of family members and assorted hangers-on, told with gentle – in the main – humour.

“a tall, grey-haired man, in black clerical clothes, with a gaunt white face reminiscent of a Pre-Raphaelite painting of Dante. It was Canon Dakin, or Cousin Bob of Hadley Hill as the family called him.”

There is a hilarious description of a lampshade wedding gift and Aunt Katie’s verdurous wedding hat. My favourite little scene was between deluded Aunt Bella, who is busy boring her nephew Lob with tales of how her servants “simply cherish me”, and is met with the following non-sequitur:

“‘My dear lady,’ replied the cheerful Lob, speaking unexpectedly loudly, and holding his glass of wine up to the light for a moment, “I don’t care two pins about all that! No! The question, as I see it, is quite a different one. The whole thing is simply this: Is it possible to be a Reckless Libertine without spending a great deal of money?’”

When we finally meet the bride, Dolly, it is clear all is not well. For starters, she has put away most of a bottle of rum to enable her to stagger down the aisle:

“At this moment Dolly was trailing slowly down the back staircase (which was nearer to her part of the house than the main one), her lace train wound round and round her arm. From out of the voluminous folds of this there peeped a cork and the top of the neck of the bottle. In her other hand was her large bunch of carnations and lillies.” 

As Dolly is unsure of what she is doing and why, simultaneously there is an admirer of hers, Joseph, who may at any minute stop the wedding, though he is not sure of his motivations for doing so. Apparently Strachey was a fan of Chekov, and Cheerful Weather for the Wedding shows this influence in domestic subject matter and conflicted characters unable to take action. The humour is bittersweet: while the preparations and family members are portrayed with a light irreverence, the drunk bride and her inert friend? lover? – we are never told – bring a genuine sadness to proceedings. I couldn’t help feeling they were both on the brink of disaster.

“Dolly knew, as she looked around at the long wedding-veil stretching away forever, and at the women too, so busy all around her, that something remarkable and upsetting in her life was going steadily forward.”

Virginia Woolf’s opinion of Cheerful Weather for the Wedding was high: ‘I think it astonishingly good – complete and sharp and individual.’ Strachey doesn’t explain everything and leaves many questions in the reader’s mind as to what is going unsaid and undone on this nuptial morning (looking at the trailer for the 2012 film it looks as if everything is spelled out, so I will not be watching the film version – why? WHY??)  While it is short, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is not slight – witty, sardonic, sad and wise – it is a fully realised portrait of everyday tragedy.

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Image from here

Secondly, A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood (1964) tells a day in the life of George Falconer, an ex-pat English professor living alone in California just after the Cuban missile crisis, and grieving the loss of his partner Jim, killed suddenly in road traffic collision.

“And it is here, nearly every morning, that George, having reached the bottom of the stairs, has this sensation of suddenly finding himself on an abrupt, brutally broken off, jagged edge – as though the track had disappeared down a landslide. It is here that he stops short and knows, with a sick newness, almost as though it were for the first time: Jim is dead. Is dead.”

In the midst of this enormous pain, George carries on with his life: teaching a class, shopping, going to the gym, getting drunk with a friend.

“In ten minutes, George will have to be George; the George they have named and will recognise. So now he consciously applies himself to thinking their thoughts, getting into their mood. With the skill of a veteran, he rapidly puts on the psychological makeup for this role he must play.”

A Single Man is perfectly paced, capturing George’s numb putting-on-foot-in-front-of-the-other coping without losing narrative drive. The tone is gentle, treating George kindly, but without sentimentality – he is not always kind himself, and his views on those he encounters are unblinking. However, as we spend the day with George, we start to get glimmers of his desire to keep living, a sense that he will find meaning in carrying on. But then his grief completely side-swipes him:

“He pictures the evening he might have spent, snugly at home…only after a few instants does George notice the omission which makes it meaningless. What is left out of the picture is Jim, lying opposite him at the other end of the couch, also reading; the two of them absorbed in their books yet so completely aware of the other’s presence.”

There is sadness in A Single Man but it is not depressing. Rather it shows how life goes on in all its messy imperfection, and that can be OK, even when you are feeling far from fine.

 A Single Man was made into a film in 2009, the directorial debut of fashion designer Tom Ford. It certainly looked amazing and had some wonderful performances by Colin Firth and Julianne Moore, but the screenplay made some significant changes and unsurprisingly, I prefer the book for its subtlety and nuance. Kudos to Ford though, for filming a book that takes place almost entirely within one man’s head.

I hope you all have a great day ahead 🙂

“But what first, Debbie, attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?” (Mrs Merton/Caroline Aherne)

Caroline Aherne, actor and writer, creator of the comedic brilliance that was The Royle Family, died on Saturday.  And so 2016 continues as forerunner for the most rubbish year in recent memory. If the political situation and the death of a yet another great person this year is getting you down, I would prescribe YouTubing  Caroline’s career for some solace.

If you enjoy someone’s work, there is a consolation that they leave this behind when they are no longer around, so I thought I would look at two novelists last works which were published in their lifetimes.

Firstly, The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1952), fulfilling the sea-based tale requirement of the Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge hosted by Hard Book Habit. And so my inexplicable love affair with Hemingway continues. I’ve written before about how much I want to dislike Hemingway, but I just adore his writing. Like all great love affairs, we are wholly incompatible, and yet I find myself drawn back time and time again, whilst knowing I cannot change him. The Old Man and the Sea did not succeed in breaking the spell.

Hemingway, rocking a chunky knit to give his best salty old sea dog impression

Hemingway, rocking a chunky knit to give his best salty old sea dog impression

The titular old man is Santiago, a Cuban fisherman who sails in the Gulf Stream and has gone 84 days without catching a fish.

“Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same colour as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.”

Manolin, a young boy, has known the fisherman his whole life and loves him, and it is through his eyes that we first see Santiago:

“His shirt had been patched so many times that it was like the sail and the patches were faded to many different shades by the sun. The old man’s head was very old though and with his eyes closed there was no life in his face. The newspaper lay across his knees and the weight of his arm held it there in the evening breeze. He was barefooted.

The boy left him there and when he came back the old man was still asleep.

“Wake up old man,” the boy said and put his hand on one of the old man’s knees.

The old man opened his eyes and for a moment he was coming back from a long way away. Then he smiled.”

They head out to fish separately – Manolin is banned from accompanying Santiago due to his salao bad luck – and what follows is the story of Santiago’s lone sea journey. The descriptions have Hemingway’s trademark pinpoint accuracy but this exists alongside metaphorical beauty, which absolutely captures the water and the isolation of the sailor.

“The old man knew he was going far out and he left the smell of the land behind and rowed out into the clean early morning smell of the ocean. He saw the phosphorescence of the Gulf weed in the water as he rowed over the part of the ocean that the fishermen called the great well because there was a sudden deep of seven hundred fathoms where all sorts of fish congregated because of the swirl the current made against the steep walls of the floor of the ocean.”

“The sea was very dark and the light made prisms in the water. The myriad flecks of the plankton were annulled now by the high sun and it was only the great deep prisms in the blue water that the old man saw now with his lines going straight down into the water that was a mile deep.”

The fisherman succeeds in hooking a “great fish” but is unable to bring it aboard, and so is towed by the marlin farther and farther out to sea, as he waits for the fish to die. I can’t say much more as it is only novella length (you can read the full text here) so I’ll just say that The Old Man and the Sea is extraordinary: fable, allegory, elegy, a meditative page-turner which I found truly moving.

“He looked across the sea and knew how alone he was now. But he could see the prisms in the deep dark water and the line stretching ahead and the strange undulation of the calm. The clouds were building up now for the trade wind and he looked ahead and saw a flight of wild ducks etching themselves against the sky over the water, then blurring, then etching again and he knew no man was ever alone on the sea.”

Secondly, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor.

Following the death of her beloved husband, Mrs Palfrey moves to the Claremont Hotel on the Cromwell Road “The porch pillars had been recently painted; there were spotted laurels in the window boxes; clean curtains – a front of emphatic respectability.” to see out her days.

“She was a tall woman with big bones and a noble face, dark eyebrows and a neatly folded jowl. She would have made a distinguished-looking man and, sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked like some famous general in drag.”

Mrs Palfrey and her fellow permanent residents at the hotel are desperately trying to avoid a nursing home and rub along together in a mix of boredom, gossip and barely suppressed disdain. Although Taylor is interested in aging and how to find meaning in a world that considers you finished, this isn’t a depressing novel , but rather a gentle comedy with a melancholic tinge.

“Soon, there was a soft, slapping sound as Mr Osmond shuffled a pack of cards for a game of patience: against this, the knitting sounds, and sighs, and stomach gurglings (quickly coughed over).

‘Well, another Sunday nearly gone,’ Mrs Post said quickly, to cover a little fart. She had presence of mind.”

Mrs Palfrey is a resolute soul, who refuses to feel sorry for herself. Part of the generation who lived through both World Wars, she gets on with things.

 “She felt a determination about the lilac trees. They were to be a part of her rules, her code of behaviour. Be independent; never give way to melancholy; never touch capital. And she had abided by the rules.”

On a walk around London, she has a fall and is rescued by a young man, Ludo. He is shaggy-haired, scruffily dressed, good-looking and a wannabe writer. They end up forming an unlikely friendship and the nuances, contradictions, tensions and tenderness between the two are beautifully observed. Taylor is a wonderful writer: sharp, observant, funny and real. She put me in mind of Barbara Pym, and the blurb on the back of my copy of this novel compares her to Jane Austen.  Certainly if you like those, you’ll find a lot to love here.

 “She could glimpse bed-sitting rooms – like Ludo’s some of them – where once cooks had attended ranges, rattling dampers, hooking off hot-plates, skimming stock pots, while listening to housemaids’ gossip bought from above stairs. Mrs Palfrey went slowly by, imagining those days, which were almost clearer to her than this present structure of honeycomb housing and the isolation of each cell, because they were the days that belonged to her being young, and so were the clearest of all to her.”

To end, if you think Ernest Hemingway and Elizabeth Taylor are an unlikely pairing…